The Sculpting Evolution Group seeks to cultivate wisdom and guard against catastrophe via evolutionary and ecological engineering.
- To craft well-designed experiments that explore new possibilities and develop new techniques
- To freely share all that is safe with the scientific community and the public
- To build safeguards against technologies that risk catastrophe
- To learn, to teach, to mentor, and above all to enjoy the process of discovery and creation
- To accomplish as much good as we can
Practicing science is a remarkable privilege. We are literally given money to build innovative technologies, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and wonder at the magnificence of the natural world. Few experiences compare with being the first person to understand a concept, develop an original method, or invent a novel device. Even when funding is scarce, the competition fierce, and 90% of experiments fail - as is often the case - we should strive to appreciate the opportunities we are given.
In return, we must be mindful of our responsibilities to our colleagues, our funders, humanity, and the natural world.
To our colleagues, we owe respect and cooperation. A good rule of thumb: is it true, kind, necessary? If not at least two of three, leave it unvoiced. Because science can be an uncertain and difficult career, it is our duty to respect the insights and achievements of others. Healthy competition can spur us to new heights of achievement, but collaboration provides an opportunity to share credit and avoid needless duplication. When choosing whether to collaborate or compete, we must consider the needs of our students and existing collaborators, whose careers may depend on the outcome.
To our funders, we have an obligation to use resources wisely. We recognize that there are many other causes and ways of improving the world with gifts, and we pledge to do everything in our power to accomplish as much good as we can. If we don't think a project can ultimately accomplish more good than a well-vetted existing charity, we will not pursue it with donated funds.
More generally, controlled replication of experiments is critical to science, but wasting time and funds in a rushed competition for status is not. Even in a molecular biology laboratory, the bulk of scientific funding is devoted to supporting students, fellows, and staff, all of whom typically receive shamefully low salaries for their credentials, talents, and dedication. There is a strong argument for supporting fewer scientists of all stages and using the extra funds to ensure they enjoy better salaries, have access to all necessary supplies and equipment, and outsource routine tasks. Outsourcing can provide young scientists with the opportunity to pursue more independent projects than their peers, which can allow a small laboratory to exceed the research output of a larger lab with the same budget.
To humanity, we owe transparency and responsiveness. As scientists, we have a professional responsibility to share the possible consequences of our research with the public in an understandable manner. If our research will not have any such consequences, we're clearly doing something wrong. More generally, we must invite, listen, and respond to concerns as best we can.
We are morally responsible for all consequences of our work. It does not matter whether our research is approved by an institutional biosafety committee, regulators, potentially affected communities, the International Association of Bioethics, or the National Academies. Moral responsibility cannot be outsourced: as we are likely the ones with the greatest knowledge of what might go right or wrong, the burden is ultimately upon our shoulders.
To the natural world, we owe a sense of wonder, our gratitude, and our caution. As we seek to understand the systems that gave us life and support our civilization, we must be careful to respect their complexity and intervene only when we are confident that it is for the best.
To civilization, we owe our protection. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, biology can inflict catastrophic harm – and SARS-CoV-2 does not gain a replicative advantage from killing us. Human ingenuity can work wonders and terrors beyond the capabilities of nature, and we know all too well that careful engineering can reshape the natural world. To credibly identify a virus as capable of causing a future pandemic is to transform it into a credible and accessible weapon of mass destruction. To identify a list of them is to give individual humans the ability to release many pandemics simultaneously. Our society is not yet wise enough to wield such destructive power, let alone to make it accessible to thousands. We strive to explore only those branches of the tree of knowledge that lack catastrophic fruit, and by leading the ascent, direct others away from peril. We seek to sculpt the evolution of biotechnology.
"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859